The Persian Empire: An Introduction


Golden chariot from the Oxus treasure, found near the Amu Darya river
Golden chariot from the Oxus treasure, found near the Amu Darya river

So, why study the ancient Persian Empire?




The Persians (Iranians) and their Long and Glorious History

For over 1,000 years, from roughly 550 BCE to 650 AD, much of what we today know as the Middle East was dominated by a group of people historians call the Persians. Their dominions stretched horizontally from what is today the edge of modern Libya to India and from north-south from Central Asia to the boundaries of Ethiopia.

Of course, there were many interruptions to Persian rule during this time, most notably by the Greeks after Alexander of Macedonia conquered Persia as well as wars with the Roman and Byzantine empires. However for the most part, the Persians held their own against the other powerful states of their time until the advent of Islam and the Arab conquest of the region. Today, though Persian culture and influence spreads far and wide, what remains of this once magnificent empire is primarily found in the modern nation of Iran. It is within these borders that the Persian heartland still remains as well as many of the ruins that pay testament to what was for centuries the mightiest empire that the world had ever seen.

Map of Persian Empire
The 1st Persian Empire, the largest of its kind known throughout antiquity

Though the Persians had lived in these areas continuously for centuries, they were ruled by various dynasties. One could say that in actuality, there were three Persian empires, all sharing a similar culture, language and common religious beliefs. What we will call the first Persian Empire was that of the Achaemenid dynasty. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that the Achaemenids ruled their empire from 559 BCE until 330 BCE, when Persia was conquered by the Macedonian warrior-king, Alexander. A few centuries later, a second Persian Empire, ruled by the Parthian dynasty, came to power. Though they did not end up controlling as much land as the Achaemenids, they were a formidable force that checked the eastward advance of the Roman empire. The Parthians in turn were followed by the Sasanids, or Sasanians. This was the third and last great Persian empire to rule the lands of Iran until the first half of the seventh century when the Arabs and the armies of Islam conquered the region.

Sources of Ancient Persian History

Much of what we know of ancient Persia comes from classical Greek and Roman sources. While their writings are important to the study of Persian history, they are not always accurate due to a lack of empirical evidence and incomplete sources. Many Greek and Roman writers also had a strong bias against the Persians, which is natural considering that they were enemies for centuries. Most ancient Greeks saw the Persians as this great “other,” opposite to them in almost every way. It would be similar to the way that many Americans viewed the Soviet Union during the Cold War: vast, exotic, threatening and in many cases, evil. This of course made it difficult for such writers to be totally objective in their assessment of their neighbors to the east.

Despite this, many Greeks also wrote admiringly accounts of individual Persians as well as certain aspects of their way of life. For example Xenophon, the Greek mercenary, wrote a biography of the empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great, and praised him for the kindness and magnanimity that he showed towards his own people as well as those he conquered. Herodotus, often called the “father of history,” wrote that it was the Persians more than any other people who welcomed the foreign customs of others, incorporating what was best from their subject peoples into their own empire. 1 Initially, the Persians under Cyrus were known to be very tolerant and even encouraging of the religious beliefs and practices of the civilizations they came in contact with. Non-Iranian peoples from ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Lydia, parts of India and Central Asia all contributed to the wealth of the empire, monetarily, intellectually and culturally.

Another source of information about ancient Persia comes from several of the Old Testament books of the Bible. When the Achaemenid Empire’s founder, Cyrus II, a.k.a. Cyrus the Great, conquered the legendary city of Babylon, there were tens of thousands of Jews living there as slaves. Cyrus freed the Jews and not only allowed them to return to their ancestral homeland in Judea, but also gave them funds to rebuild their sacred temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians several decades earlier. How do we know this? Because these events are recorded in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Isaiah. These sources describe the interactions and edicts of various Achaemenid kings with Jewish people of the empire. Another Biblical source is the Book of Ester. While the historical accuracy of many events described in that book is debatable, it is a source that depicts many of the customs of the Persian kings and by extension, Persians as a whole.

Persepolis
Ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, near Shiraz, Iran

The Rediscovery of Ancient Persia

Most of antiquity and beyond relied on these ancient Greek and Roman sources until the 1800s when archaeologists started to actually visit the ruined sites of the empire. They were able to decipher for themselves Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian writings and inscriptions. Using this newfound knowledge and combining it with what was already believed to have been known, archaeologists were able to formulate a much better understanding of the Persian people and the exciting world in which they lived in.

Secrets in the Dust - Persia Legacy of the Flames

The legacy of the Persians remains with us today, both in the lands which they ruled as well as beyond their borders. The Persian language, before the modern age and the spread of English, was for centuries the lingua-franca from the Mediterranean world to China. Many Persian words also found their way into western languages. For example, the word “paradise” is of Persian origin. Persian architecture was also unique, and it is from them that we received domed structures. Probably even more so, Persian philosophy and religious thought has had a profound influence on nearly all of the major western religions that are with us today. Many scholars believe that the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the religion that in some form was the belief system for the vast majority of the Iranian peoples (Persians, Medes, Bactrians, Sogdians, etc.), greatly influenced Jewish and later Christian thought. Examples of these would be not only the belief in monotheism (belief in one God), but also that of angels, Heaven, Hell and a Day of Judgement.

There’s a lot that can be said about the lasting influence of the Persians on the history and peoples of the world. However, we’re more concerned with history here. Therefore, let’s get going on our adventure of ancient Iran and the Persian Empire!


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